Nicolette proves he can still play at 52

         Local qualifying in Arizona for the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black is finally complete and 17 players from two sites in the Phoenix area and one in Tucson are on their way to the next hurdle — sectional qualifying — around the country.
        It’s not surprising, really, that proven players like Ryan Dillon (Tucson Country Club), Boyd Summerhays (Encanterra in Queen Creek) and Brian Cooper (Golf Club Scottsdale) emerged as medalists. Or that talented guys like Charlie Beljan, Chris Kamin and Jin Song also are on their way.
        The real beauty of the national championship is that anybody can catch the wave, which this year included a record 9,086 entrants. Especially when you see a name from the past — someone you might think has no business hanging with the young and the restless — also advancing to the second stage.
        We’re speaking of Mike Nicolette, the senior product designer for PING who once played — and won! — on the PGA Tour. This time the 52-year-old Nicolette seemingly came out of nowhere – well, he did have the last tee time of the day at the Golf Club Scottsdale – to rekindle his competitive fire.
        Asked if he could still be a force to be reckoned with, the good-natured Nicolette, who has a subtle sense of humor, just laughed.
        “I’m trying to be,’’ Nicolette said after shooting a 3-under-par 69 that secured the last spot and, to Nicolette’s surprise, avoided a playoff.
        “I still have the desire to compete, but not enough to pull me away from PING. I love my job, the people I work with, and the clubs we are creating. We’re all very close, we’re all good players, and we all have that drive – that synergy — to make PING the No. 1 (equipment company) in golf.’’
        This will be Nicolette’s 20th year working for PING, an anniversary he plans to celebrate in September. But already it’s been a memorable year at the plant in northwest Phoenix, especially for Nicolette, who is considered “the wedge expert’’ after creating PING’s Tour-W series, including the new Tour-W TS (thin sole).
        “When Angel Cabrera won the Masters, there was pure pandemonium around here,’’ Nicolette said of the burly Argentine who now has won two major championships while playing PING clubs including the 2007 U.S. Open.
         “Any time one of our players wins a major it’s such a big deal. We all take pride in the fact we helped build his or her clubs. And I take great pride, personally, in our new wedges.’’
         According to Pete Samuels, who heads up PING’s marketing department, Cabrera got Nicolette’s latest, greatest wedge – the Tour-W TS 60-degree — the week before the Masters when he was playing at the Shell Houston Open.
         “It didn’t really come out in the media, but when Angel got the new wedge he told our reps (on the PGA Tour), ‘This is it!’ ’’Samuels reported. “Then at the Masters during Saturday’s third round at the 15th hole, Angel used it to flop his third short from an impossible lie that led to an improbable birdie.
         “Later, he was talking to our reps and said that the shot at the 15th was “the shot of the tournament.’ I’m sure that meant a lot to Mike.’’
          Nicolette concurred, but in his usual humble style.
         “My name’s not out there with (Bob) Vokey and (Roger) Cleveland,’’ he said of the more well-known wedge creators. “But I’m sneaking up on them!’’
        Nicolette also snuck up the leaderboard on Monday, when he drew the last tee time of the day in the local qualifier. It was a gut check for Nicolette, who faced 104-degree heat most of the five hours he was on the course as well as some nasty winds that kicked up later in the afternoon.
       “It turned out to be a real struggle, especially the walking part,’’ said Nicolette, who hasn’t played professionally since 1988 even though he did win the 2000 Arizona Open.
        “I guess I’m just really out of shape. But I was lucky in that my wife, Denise, caddied for me and she’s in good shape. She’s the best, and kept the cold towels coming along with the Gatorade. She told me right after the very first hole, ‘C’mon, you can do it but you’ve got to keep up.’ ’’
       As it turned out, Nicolette managed to do just enough to punch his ticket to the second stage. But before that happened, the former champ of the 1983 Bay Hill Classic thought he had to birdie the last hole to have any chance.
       “I hit a great second shot in there (at No. 18) to about 15 feet from the cup, and then rolled what I thought was a perfect putt,’’ said Nicolette, who just happened to beat Greg Norman in a one-hole playoff at Bay Hill for his one and only title in nine years on Tour.
       “But the ball went in and then lipped right out. So I walked to the clubhouse expecting a playoff and end up making it right on the number. It was like, ‘Thank you, Lord!’ ’’
        Despite the 69, which placed him three shots behind Cooper, Nicolette said he has no intentions of seeking out a career on the Champions Tour. That conclusion, however, was based more on last year’s results rather than this year’s brief, one-day stint in Open qualifying.
       “I tried to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open last year at the Broadmoor, but I couldn’t do any better than being an alternate,’’ Nicolette noted. “I did shoot 65 in a Monday (Champions Tour) qualifier for the Greater Hickory in North Carolina, which got me in there.
        “But once I got into the Greater Hickory, I forgot how to putt. Tee to green, I couldn’t have hit it better, but I putted my way out of a top 10, and I think I ended up something like even par. I also tried to qualify later in the year for Houston, but shot 73 and it took 69. So the reality is, it’s pretty hard to get out there and stay out there.’’
        So what the heck is Nicolette doing trying to qualify for the U.S. Open? Has he lost his mind trying to compete against the flat bellies?
        “Don’t you remember when you were 10 years old, and every putt you tried to make you pretended it was to win the U.S. Open?’’ he mused.  “Hey, I still want to play even if I can’t play as much as I used to play.’’
       But give Nicolette credit, as the one thing he plans to do – U.S. Open or no U.S. Open — is get in shape. And that mission starts now.
     “My game is still good. I just need to get on the treadmill and take a few hikes in the mountains, and maybe go up to Flagstaff and get in a little golf in the next three weeks so I can handle (the elevation) when I get to Colorado,’’ he said of his next stop at Columbine Country Club near Denver. “You know I’m not really pudgy, but you can be skinny and out of shape, too.
      “The reality is I’ve been spending a lot of time in the office lately. You could say that I’m really good with the (computer) mouse, if that means anything.’’
      If you get the feeling he misses the competition, you’re probably right. In fact, he almost said as much when prodded to put the Mike Rexford Nicolette story into perspective.
      “I guess I might get a little more satisfaction out of life if I could still win out there,’’ Nicolette said. “At the same time, it would be even more gratifying if those clubs I got the ‘W’ with were the ones I’ve helped make over the years at PING.’’